My Lexington story begins at the Old Burying Ground behind First Parish Church.
Literally, in fact. One of my cousins grew up right next door in the Battle Green Apartments, and the old stones were our playground for childhood scavenger hunts. I had a vague notion of being somewhere important when I stumbled upon the elaborate tabletop-style grave of the reverend John Hancock. Seven-year-old me was not yet keen on history, but she knew she'd heard that name somewhere before.
I’ve always been fascinated by the artwork on the oldest stones, from the grotesque winged skulls to the attempted portraits of the deceased. But until recently, I didn’t know that there was an anomaly hidden in the back corner of the burying ground. While doing research for our weekly graveyard tour, I discovered the grave of Thomas Prentice, a Lexington lawyer who died in 1760. I never noticed it before - his gravestone is easy to pass by. It can be hard to see in direct sunlight; the carving isn’t as deeply incised as most of the stones around it. Adorning the top of the stone is not a skull or an angel, but a sort of bizarre mixture of the two, a skull shape with human eyes and a vaguely reassuring smile on its face. Near the bottom, in a font unique to this stone, the final line reads, “Engrav’d by Abel Webster, 1763”.
This invites quite a few questions. Why is this the only stone of its type in Lexington, and why is it signed so prominently? While studying graveyard art is fairly common, we don’t often think about who actually did the carving. Stone carvers who signed their work generally did it on the back of the stone, underground, or hidden in the design, not splayed in bold across the front. Clearly Abel felt very highly about himself. But it wasn't completed until three years after Prentice's death. Also, skulls don't usually have lips. What's going on here?
It turns out that the Webster family stone carving shop is something of a local legend. Abel and his brother Stephen were known for their mid-century stones that transition between 17th century skulls and 18th century “soul effigies” (the carvings that look a bit like angels). Trying to portray the eternal soul in a less gruesome way, they invented a completely unique art style. They didn't always agree on the execution, though. According to one story, they even fought over how optimistic about death they should be. Abel’s carvings generally feature happy-looking, smiling faces, while Stephen’s carvings are apathetic at best and depressed at worst. This makes identifying the carver fairly easy, even when they aren’t signed – just look for the smile or the frown!
The reason why Lexingtonians haven’t heard of this hilarious bit of local lore? The Websters were actually from Chester, New Hampshire! The majority of stones carved by them are found in Chester and the border town of Hollis, next to Nashua. It’s likely that Abel was working as an itinerant carver in a variety of towns to augment his work with the local population. Thomas Prentice’s family may have leapt at the chance to have a completely new type of stone marking his grave, making it stand out among those created by local carvers.
The type of carving Abel usually did is called a "light bulb head" in gravestone history circles, for obvious reasons. Some of them are actually quite adorable.
Stephen seems to have mostly used one shape and one theme on his carvings. I guess if you have a signature style, you should stick with it, even if it's pessimistic!
The Farber Gravestone Collection at the American Antiquarian Society is a great resource to see the work of different carvers. You can browse more of Abel and Stephen's work by searching their interactive database of New England gravestones. All of the pictures in this post can be found there.
Also, be sure to join us on a "Stories in Stone" tour to see the Thomas Prentice grave for yourself! Tours are only $5 and run every Friday at 11 AM, leaving from Buckman Tavern. More information can be found here.
- Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.